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Age of Steam
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Steam belching iron horses roar across the wild plains in Warfrog's first railway game. Age of Steam relives the era of the pioneer US railroads building the track that transformed America's economy. The cut-throat action is centered on the industrial powerhouse of the growing nation Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and beyond.
The game is based on Winsome's popular Early Railways system, created by Martin Wallace. The major changes to that system is the addition of track tiles allowing you to build your own routes. Age of Steam also allows towns to be developed into cities, ensuring that no two games are exactly the same.
The challenges that await you:
- Can you finance both the most extensive track network and the most powerful locomotives?
- Which routes will give the best returns on their costs?
- Can you beat the opposition to the most lucrative shipments?
- Will you make enough money to pay your aggressive creditors?
Competition is brutal, with the game usually going to the player who plans most carefully.
Each self-contained phase in the game keeps players constantly involved in making vital decisions and interacting with other players.
Age of Steam can be played by three to six players, usually takes 3 hours to complete, and is suitable for persons aged 13 and above.
Players: 3 - 6
Time: 180 minutes
Ages: 13 and up
Est. time to learn: 30+ minutes
Weight: 1,379 grams
Language Requirements: This is an international edition or domestic edition of an imported item. Game components are printed in English. Manufacturer's rules are printed in multiple languages (including English).
- 1 Game Board
- 1 Goods/Actions display card
- 1 Income Track display card
- 8 Town discs
- 136 hexagonal Track tiles
- 8 hexagonal New City tiles
- 96 Goods cubes
- 6 sets of Track Ownership discs
- 40 gold counters
- 40 small silver counters
- 10 large silver counters
- 1 Turn Track marker
- 6 dice
Average Rating: 5 in 9 reviews
If Martin Wallace designs a new game these days, I will buy it sight-unseen, on the spot without any question or qualms. Not all of his games are favorites of mine (Lords of Creation, Election USA); but most of them are real winners, being tremendous games of strategy. The single game that turned me around to becoming a Wallace fanatic was Age of Steam (Winsome Games and Warfrog, 2001 - Martin Wallace). When I first picked up the box and looked at the back, I thought that the board was drab and boring and delayed playing it.
Once I saw it set up for the first time, I was floored, seeing little wooden bits all over the table. My first playing was one of extreme fun (after we restarted when I went bankrupt), and I’ve been playing it ever since. It’s one of the few heavier games that plays well with three to six players, although differently with each. There’s certainly a learning curve; but once a player has played their initial game, the lure of trying a new strategy calls it back. When one wins a game of Age of Steam, it is an accomplishment; as the scores reward both good strategy and tactics. Age of Steam has entered my top ten games; and with expansion maps continually coming out, it will probably stay there for quite some time.
The basic game of Age of Steam uses a partial map of America, depicting the Great Lakes area - split up into hexes, with twelve cities and fourteen towns in various places. The twelve cities are split up into two groups - western half of the board and eastern half, each city having a number from one to six and being one of four colors (purple, blue, red and yellow). Each player takes a pile of discs in their chosen color and places several on two-player aid boards. One token is placed at the “0” space on an income track, another is placed at the “2” space on an issued shares track; another is placed at the “1 link” space on the engine track, and one is placed above a selection actions chart; a final one is randomly placed on a player order track, determining the starting order for the beginning of the first turn. A pile of money tokens is placed near the board, with $10 given to each player. A pile of hexagonal track tiles is placed in the box lid, and then goods are placed. Ninety-six goods cubes in five different colors (purple, blue, red and yellow) are placed in a cup or bag, and then two are randomly placed on each city (three on Pittsburgh and Wheeling). Each city has a matching column on the player aid (the Goods Display) with three spaces - in each of these spaces a random good cube is placed. Ten new city tiles (in all five colors) are placed near the board, marked “A” through “H”. These cities also have a matching column on the player aid with two spaces with random good cubes placed in each. A turn marker is placed on a turn track at the start position, and the first turn is ready to begin.
There are ten phases to each turn in which all players participate. The first phase is the “Issue Shares” phase, in which players (in turn order) decide whether to issue more shares. For each share the player issues, they receive $5 from the bank and move their token on the issued shares track up one. Players then determine play order through a bidding sequence. The player in first place must either bid $1 or move their token to the last space on the turn order track. Each succeeding player must increase the bid or move their token to the last available space on the track. If a player took the “Turn Order Pass” action on the previous turn, they may pass once during the auction without having to place their token on the Player Order Track. The top two bidders must pay the full amount of their final bid to the bank; the lowest bidder pays nothing; and all other bidders pay half of their bids to the bank.
Players then, in turn order, choose one of seven different actions: First Move, First Build, Engineer, Locomotive, Urbanization, Production, or Turn Order Pass. Each of these actions takes place in a specific phase, except for Locomotive, which allows the player to immediately increase their token on the Engine Track by one.
The fourth phase is the Build Track phase, where players build track tiles on the board. If any player took the “First Build” action, they go first; otherwise, all players build in turn order. Each player may place a maximum of three tiles on the board, unless they took the “Engineer” action, allowing them to place up to four tiles. The player who chose “Urbanization” may also choose any of the unused city tiles, placing them onto any town spot on the board, upgrading that town to a city, replacing any track tile that might be in that square. There are some rules when building tracks...
- Simple tracks (straight or a simple curve) cost $2 to build.
- Complex track (crossings or two co-existing tracks on the same tile) can replace a simple track - costing $3 for a crossing, and $2 for a coexisting.
- A track placed on a space with a river running through it costs $3.
- A track with a mountain terrain costs $4 to place a track in it.
- A track connecting a town costs $1 for the town, plus $1 for each connecting track.
- If a player connects two towns and/or cities, he places one of his disks on the track to show ownership of it.
- If a player does not connect a city and/or town with their track, they place one of their disks on the track to show that they own it; but if they don’t complete the track the following turn, the disk is removed, leaving the track up for grabs.
- There are a few other rules regarding terrain, connecting towns, etc.
The next phase is the “Move Goods” phase. Starting with the player who picks the “First Move” action (if any), and then in turn order, each player may either move one good cube or increase their maximum links by one on the Engine Track. A good can only be moved to a city that matches its color. Each section of track connecting a city or town counts as one link, and players may only move cubes the amount of links equal to where their token is on the Engine Track. For each link of their own color that the cube passes over, the player moves their token one on the Income Track. If the cube passes over other players’ tracks, their income is also increased by one for each link passed over. Once all players have shipped a good, increased Engine Track, or passed, the same thing is repeated one more time.
The next two phases, Collect Income and Pay Expenses, can be combined. Each player receives an amount of money equal to the number their token is on the income track. However, they must pay to the bank the sum of the shares issued and the number of links their token is on the Engine Track. If the player doesn’t have the money to pay the bank, they must reduce their income track marker by one for each dollar owned. If a player’s token goes below $0, they are eliminated from the game.
In the Income Reduction Phase, players move their tokens back a certain amount of spaces on the income track, if they are above 11. The number moved back is determined by how far their token is on the track. There is then a Goods Growth Phase. The player who chose the “Production” action can randomly draw two goods cubes and place them in any empty boxes in the Goods Display. After this, four dice are rolled for the western cities, and then four for the eastern cities. Each city whose number matches a number rolled has the first available good in their column on the Goods Display placed on the city. Multiple cubes might be placed on the same city, and cities with no goods in the Goods Display ignore the rolls. The New Cities columns are lined up with some of the numbers, so they might also have goods placed on them.
In the last phase, Advance Turn Marker, the turn marker is obviously moved one space. If it reaches a space declaring game end (different depending on number of players), the game ends after the next turn. Players then sum up their victory points:
- Points equal to three times the number their disk is on the Income Track.
- One point for each section of track they have on the board.
- Negative points equal to three times the number of shares they have issued.
The player with the most points is the winner!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: I stated that at first I was less than impressed by the board; but after playing the game, I was glad it was so plain, as it was very easy to place tracks and see what was going on. And even so, once all the tracks are laid out, with cubes and discs on the board, it really does look really cool. The map of the Great Lakes area is very well done, and it’s fun to connect cities you know (for those who aren’t Americans, maps are being done of many other countries). The track tiles are of a good thickness and are very clean and easy to see on the board. The money is different sized Tiddly-Wink pieces (seems to be common in many games), and the tokens and cubes are nice sized and easy to handle. There are a LOT of pieces in the game, but everything fits well in the box when bagged, and I was even able to fit an expansion board in the box also. The player aids are impressive, managing to hold a wealth of information on them in an orderly fashion. Warfrog has done an outstanding job on the components, which are certainly equal to the price of the game.
2.) Slight Problems: Warfrog is known for their errors in games (although it’s really quite miniscule, people tend to talk about it.) The problem in AOS is that Detroit is numbered incorrectly. This is extremely easy to ignore or fix - Warfrog issued a sticker to correct the problem, or you can download it off the internet. Also, the goods and city colors are identical to the player colors. For an experienced player, this is no big deal but can be confusing to new players. (It is expensive to do 11 different colors, however.) Notice that even with these minor problems, I still rate the game a “10” which shows how nitpicky these problems are.
3.) Rules: I usually criticize Warfrog for their formatting of their rules, but AOS’s rules are the best from that company. They are seven pages of nicely formatted rules with illustrations and many examples. Everything is laid out in detail, making the game easy for someone to understand. Learning the game itself can be a task, often depending on how good the teacher is; but once learned, everything runs fairly smoothly.
4.) Learning Curve: At the same time, new players are at a definite disadvantage in their first game. Even with the more experienced players coaching them, helping them realize what good decisions are, I’ve rarely seen a new player win their first game. At the same time, because the game has an excellent way of stopping the “rich-get-richer” problem (Income reduction), games are usually close, with even the losers having a good time and not caring that they’ve lost. I always warn new players about bankruptcy, however (I’m sensitive since it happened to me); and very rarely have I seen it happen, as long as players realize they are on a short leash financially.
5.) Finances: One thing I love about the game is how tight money is at first. If a player breaks even in the first couple of turns, they are usually ecstatic, knowing that they’ve done well. Only near the end of the game do players have a lot of money, and by then it’s good for nothing. Knowing how many shares to take and when to take them is crucial. And even players who make little money in the beginning of the game can still do well, as long as they keep their debts down.
6.) Strategies: There are whole series of articles written on strategy of the game - most of which I haven’t read, since I like to form my own strategies with games. But Age of Steam, one of the few games I have a high winning percentage at, is so well designed that you can see exactly how your strategies are implemented. Of course, strategies vary greatly depending on how many players are in the game; and while I think that the optimal players is four, I love playing with any number of players. (I even heard that there’s a two-player variant available, but I’m not interested in it. I prefer it as a multiplayer game.)
7.) Fun Factor and Interaction: This game, even though it’s sometimes head-scratching strategic, is a blast. This is helped in great part by the player interaction in the game. From the auctions, which can get fairly tense at times, to the special actions (“Hey! You took Urbanization, and my strategy revolved around that!”), to cutting off other players with your tracks, to shipping your goods over other players’ rails, to shipping cubes just before others players, there is massive interaction in the game, and one must watch all other players at all times so that they don’t lose. I’ve played several games that have been won and lost by only a point or two, and making one small critical mistake can cost you. The joy of winning and the joy of losing (the game is that fun) make this one a game that I’ll pull out often.
8.) Expansions: There are several expansion maps from both Winsome and Warfrog, as well as unofficial maps that can be found online. These maps with different layouts and special rules allow the game to have a great variety. I would be satisfied with the map in the box, but the extra maps make the game even more fun. (My current favorite is Korea.)
This is a great, great game, and one should not hesitate to pick up a copy of it if they can. It’s certainly not a light game, and one in which all the players should be ready to match wits and tactics, but it’s fun and involving. Seeing your tracks laid out on the board gives one a great feeling of satisfaction, and the theme really fits the mechanics well. Until I had played Age of Steam, I had never been interested in rail games; and this game has really sparked my desire to play more, although I’ve yet to play one as good as this one. This game is Martin Wallace’s masterpiece and is certainly one of the best games of the decade. If you like good strategic games, buy this one; you won’t regret it!
“Real men play board games.”
Few railroad games combine track-building, business investment, and goods-moving in such a playable system like Age of Steam -- with an little auction fun thrown in to boot.
To be sure, some first time players may find the rules and/or strategy a little difficult to grasp at first, but once one has seen the mechanics and flow of each turn, it all comes together nicely.
The greatest challenge resides in the fact that the players start with no cash, and must raise cash through stock issues in order invest in track and locomotive upgrades to generate profits. The downside, of course, is paying out dividends each turn for each share that's been issued by your company, so striking a delicate balance between short-term needs and long-term dividend payments is crucial. First-time players ought not be discouraged if they go bankrupt in their first game.
While resource management is tight and challenging, it's not all just stock issues and account balancing. Players compete to connect to cities and move those goods as well to generate more cash, so long-range planning is important.
Some have dubbed Age of Steam as '18XX-series lite,' and that maybe be. It is certainly more challenging than the crayon-rail games (e.g. Empire Builder and British Rails), but less complex than the 18XX-series.
It plays in 2-2.5 hours, and it's more fun than it is work.
We've had a lot of fun with this game, and I highly recommend it.
Show all 9 reviews >
We never thought train-game maestro Wallace could outdo himself, but we were wrong. The plains of America await the coming of the Iron Horse! Sell off shares of your newly formed railroad to build track between cities and towns, establishing transportation lines that will allow you to ship goods--thereby generating more income to build more track to deliver more goods. You must balance your books carefully, for money is extremely tight from start to finish. You'll find yourself juggling many needs: building the most useful tracks, improving your locomotives, creating new goods for delivery, and developing towns into lucrative industrial centers. Complicating matters even further, your competitors can beat you to the vital rail connections, forcing you to share your wealth. Each railroad's assets (income and track, minus liabilities) determine the winner of this delightful experience for the shrewd, intense gamer.
The build up to Essen is always intriguing as the news and rumours develop about particular games. When a picture and early views are also available, especially from a trusted source, and the game has appeal, the countdown to Essen becomes unbearable (well for me, anyway). The words and pictures on the net of Age of Steam on Brett and Board made me want to get this game above all others. I liked the predecessors, Lancashire Rails and Volldampf, and my only complaint over Volldampf was that it was over too quickly. Age of Steam seemed to promise a longer playing time, high quality components and a route building mechanism that earned its summary as Volldampf meets 18XX. This is not true as the share buying is much more Volldampf than 18XX, but you could see where the pundits were coming from because of the tiles.
Impressions of the physical quality of the game are that they have pushed the boat out on this one. The solid box, with pleasant cover, high quality thick tiles, and mounted map board make you realise that this is a game that the publishers believe in. You then get a number of goods cubes, and circular markers. Grey ones are used to note where stations are located while coloured ones mark ownership of routes. A very reasonable package that certainly adds to your expectation levels.
The game is set in North America with the large lakes present but not dominating the board, the Mississippi cutting the game board in half and scatterings of cities already built (Kansas to Toronto) with some awaiting development (Green Bay to Cleveland). A standard hex grid covers the board. The main aim is to transport coloured cubes (products) from their current location to a city matching the colour of the cube, which is where the demand for these goods exists.
My initial thoughts on the game play are that the game feels very similar to Volldampf. The key change is that the routes are not pre-built between the cities and therefore the options for building routes between two cities vary considerably. Unlike Volldampf, ownership of a route between two cities can and probably will be challenged by players building alternative routes between the same two cities. As income is earned in a similar way to Volldampf, by moving a cube over your route, the monopoly situation that you have in Volldampf when a route is well placed is less likely to develop as players can now build alternatives.
The map board deserves some study. There are 6 cities on each of the western and eastern sides of the board. There are 4 different demands for goods (colours) on these cities -- red, blue, yellow and purple, but red and blue are on 4 of the 12 cities, while yellow and purple are on only two of the cities. The yellow cities and purple cities are both far apart, while the blue and red cities are much closer together. When the cities are filled with their initial goods, there are three placed in two of the cities on the eastern side of the board and two in every other city. This gives a significant leaning toward the eastern side of the board for initial track placement and an added impetus for making the choice of player order, if there wasn't already one there. The final twist is the distribution of the goods cubes. There are 96 of these in five colours, with 16 black and 20 of each other colour. It is likely that some black goods cubes will be drawn in the initial set up, as there will be 26 drawn at random. In order to earn income from these goods, there must be a city with demand for black goods. This can only be achieved when someone selects the urbanization option, which brings on a new city. This makes the game much more detailed than Volldampf and into the echelons of 18XX for depth.
Players begin with no cash but 15 shares in their newly formed company. At the beginning of every game round, shares can be sold for 5 money each, but at the expense of 3 victory points at the game end. Money is used to determine every other action, so you need enough to meet your needs but not too much as beside the victory point cost, you also have to pay a dividend of 1 money per share. So what do you need to use money for? The list includes:
Bidding for turn order, as the earlier you go in the turn the more choice you have about the next options
Building track -- Normal track costs 2 money per hex, but placing stations is generally more expensive. Track upgrades are 3 and the cost of bridging a river hex or driving round a mountain add further to your costs.
Paying expenses -- these include the 1 per share issued, and also maintenance costs for your trains, which is assessed as one money per engine link level.
The complete sequence of play is issue shares, determine player order, select actions, build track, move goods, collect income, pay expenses, income reduction, goods growth and advance turn marker.
The key decision is bidding for turn order, as you then decide which of the actions to take and once someone has chosen an action, you have to select from the rest. The bidding for turn order follows much along the lines of Volldampf, so you can either take the lowest turn order card or open the bidding. The next player then has to increase the bid or take the lowest turn order card. In a five player game the top two bids have to pay their bid in full, the third and fourth players pay half and the other one pays nothing. Often a player will drop out early in the bidding as either they have insufficient cash or the choices of action are wide enough not to bother them. Having decided upon the turn order, the first player now selects from the actions.
These are somewhat like the roles in Puerto Rico as they confer a benefit upon the owner of the action, and sometimes the other players will have options to play a reduced similar type of action. This is fundamental to the game and a new aspect to this series of railway games, so here are the actions in rough popularity order.
Urbanization action: Possibly the most powerful action is another innovation to the game series. At the beginning of the game about half the cities are built. The rest are still towns -- you can see where they are, but don't know what type of goods they will demand. This action allows you to develop a town and create a new city. The board is divided into two areas, left and right and each city at the beginning of the game is numbered 1 to 6 on each side. The new city tiles are labelled A to H, with A to D on the left hand (western) side and E to H on the right hand (eastern) side. When the urbanization action is selected and your turn begins, you must play one of these new city tiles on the board. The next cunning aspect of this is that the new cities have demand for different coloured goods. So the choices are wide at the beginning of the game, and the decision to bring on a city with demand for black goods will depend on the number of black goods drawn and their location. What makes this action so effective, and one that players seek, is that the city tile is a free cost. The player still retains the ability to build up to 3 track sections, effectively making the distance that you can cover 4 hexes, so this action is hotly sought.
Locomotive action: At the beginning of the game every player can run their trains along routes that only link two cities. This is a 1 route length. As the product cubes have to be delivered from their starting point to a valid destination by the end of their movement, the number of products that can be delivered is small. Also, the income earned from each route is the number of routes over which the product cube passes, so a 1 route will only increase your income by 1money. This action is popular, but the same result can be achieved by not running one of your two trains allowed in the move goods phase and earning an increase in the distance (number of links) that your trains can travel. A popular choice early on is to not use the locomotive action, thereby increasing your train route length, and then using this increased length to earn an extra income.
First move: This allows a player to move goods first and when there are a limited number of choices, or one that is particularly valuable, this option is vital to take. This breaks the normal turn order rules and is a solid choice.
First Build: allows a player to build their route first, out of the turn order established at the bidding phase. This is pretty important when you want to get to somewhere first, or beat a rival to a route, as it will save you money and time in doing so. The money saved is because the next person building the same route (if it is available) will probably have to choose a longer route.
Turn order pass: This doesn't sound like much of an option -- you can pass once during the auction for player order. In practice, it works out that you will be able to go first of second in the choice of actions and for only a small cost, and often for no money and is key to a low cost strategy.
Engineer: Unusually you can only make three tile placements on the map, but the engineer allows you to place a fourth tile. Of course you have to pay for it, so it is not as good as the urbanization action. There is no turn sequence changing with this option, but it's certainly better than production.
Production: This allows a player to draw randomly two goods cubes from those available and place them on any two empty boxes on the goods display. This has to be the least popular of the actions. At the beginning of the game, there are plenty of goods to move and less opportunity to place a good of a particular colour on the box of their choice. At the end of the game, the choice of box may be available, but with only a few turns to go, the likelihood of the goods being rolled during the dice roll is not very good, and then they have to be able to be moved in time for the end of the game. They may not be moved by the person who selected the production option, as another person may move the goods earlier in the round. All in all, this is a hopeless option. Perhaps if those goods could be moved on during the next phase, at least that would provide some measure of control or the colour of goods were selected rather than randomly chosen there would be some extra value, but at the moment this option is poor.
Once you have chosen your action, players proceed in player order through the game sequence, unless the first move or first build are in play. The track building phase is inevitably the highlight of the game for some. There are some major differences between 18xx and Age of Steam, although they appear very similar. First of all, you can lay your three tracks (more if you are the engineer) anywhere you want. It does not have to be connected to your previous track, and this allows a lot of freedom of choice. The track has to start at a city and if the track laying concludes at another city, you mark the route with your coloured marker. If this is not concluded you still do so, but have to complete it by the end of your next track laying phase, or risk losing that route. (But you will always complete it.) If a track is laid over a town, then a station marker is put in place. This completes the route (which is good), and allows a multiplicity of ways of laying track. I thought this was a very neat solution. If you want to join a city that is already linked by another player, you have to use another hex side as an entry point. In order to cross another person's track you have to maintain the same original track (as in 18XX), but you never link into someone else's track. There are plenty of ways of crossing someone's track, but you have to bear in mind the cost. It is usually less expensive to be the first person to have a route between two stations.
Goods are then moved across the tracks, earning one income for each piece of track that a good is moved over. This is a fast phase of the game as there are fewer options.
New goods are replenished from a chart, which holds 3 goods for each city (and 2 for the potential new ones). This allows you to know what will replenish the goods at each city. Dice are thrown to determine which of the goods will actually replenish each turn. As the starting cities are numbered, the die roll matching the city number causes the top available goods marker to arrive. The same dice roll is used for the new cities, as the goods markers for these are aligned under four of the cities for each side. The only way that these goods are replaced is if someone chooses the production action, which as I've already pointed out is the worst action of the seven available.
All these decisions can be difficult to take and dependent on the person who preceded you in the turn order. With 5 players there is a certain amount of down time, but since the game is so engrossing, you are not twiddling your thumbs. While we are on the subject of minor downers, there are a couple of typos in the rules and one misprint on the map. Nothing is very serious and you are provided with a small sticker to cover the misprint, which it does quite nicely. The only components that I think are too large are the markers for each person's route. They are clear enough to see of course, but I think they dominate the map too much. I admit this is a nit pick, but one that does come to my mind.
Over the course of the games that I have played, the margin of victory has been small. The scoring system gives 3 points for each income point on the track, less 3 points for each issued share and adds 1 point for each route that a player owns. As income is earned by anyone using your routes, it can boil down to the difference between someone using your route or not, as in general the traffic that you generate will use your own routes, almost exclusively. This raises several points. Firstly, I haven't played the game sufficiently to assess alternative strategies, but with a railway game and routes to build, there is an inevitable desire to connect up cities, regardless of or with disregard for the long term costs. Secondly, it is usual for a player to find an alternative route between two cities, so the control exercised in Volldampf over your key routes is not present. I have found that players tend to avoid giving income to other players and therefore do not run their goods over other people's tracks. This makes the situation of running over someone else's tracks more unusual, perhaps significant enough to determine victory. As I said, I could be wrong, and would welcome comments from other players or the designers.
In such a deep game, there are many options but the game caters to all types of economic railway gamer. For the route builders there are so many to lay that they will be in seventh heaven. For the economic miracle workers, there are many strategies to pursue -- more than I have certainly considered and for the good transporters, there is a multitude of ways to enjoy the game. The random set-up of goods ensures that different routes will be built and transported, so it is clear that you need to spend some time considering what you do before you jump in and play. The game interaction level is high -- the competition for turn order, choice of actions, route selection and decisions about which good to transport first are all intriguing and ensure a high level of interest among players.
I can say no more than that this game is now going to set the standards for railway type games that play under 2 hours.
How will the publishers follow this up? They expect to produce new maps, possibly of Germany and in the UK, and I suspect they will be successful. Age of Steam is a thoroughly well produced, excellent railway game and I can see it coming out for gaming sessions on a regular basis. Well done to Warfrog/Winsome!